# Introduction

A new year, a new season of the J.League! This is yet another condensed season due to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar happening in late November ~ December, just about overlapping with the time the J.League usually finishes so fans and players alike get yet another busy schedule. We are now in the 30th season of the J.League and although COVID related measures are still largely in place, things are slowly getting back to normal with bigger crowds and hopefully soon, fans will start being allowed to cheer again if the trials in the next few months are successful. This season has seen Jubilo Iwata and Kyoto Sanga join J1, their first time back to the premier competition level in 3 years and 12 years respectively. As has become tradition in the last few years, this is the mid-season review of the J.League where I look at how teams are doing using both data and watching the games (or the eye-test or whatever other term you want to use).

For these blog posts that I create I would ideally use data from WyScout, InStat, etc. to take advantage of their detailed stats (expected goals, progressive passes, etc.) especially to look at player-level data and match that up with my own notes from watching the games and of course the tagged/organized video footage that these platforms provide (especially as DAZN only keeps matches up online for about a month until they are archived forever into the abyss…). Unfortunately, all of that costs $. I do all of this as a hobby and I can’t justify the expense (it’s not the$ but more importantly the time to make full use of purchasing an account). So, I am only using data from free websites which do not have as much detail. Thankfully, I have been able to find a bit more on a player and team level from a variety of new sources. Once again, a big arigato to websites like Transfermarkt, Sporteria, Football-Lab, FBref, and more! As always, you can always check where I got the data from my taking a look at the bottom corners of any viz.

Since last year I’ve been heavily relying on the TACTICALista app to create tactics diagrams/animations. You’ll see a lot of them in the team summary sections and I urge you to check it out, it’s really great. For those of you familiar with my previous work, I would’ve liked to remain on brand and create soccer-related diagrams/animations with {ggplot2} and {gganimate} but… that would’ve taken a loooong time so I have been using a program that’s actually built for this kind of thing instead.

I’ll be very happy if any J.League bloggers (as long as there’s no pay wall or anything) want to use any of the viz I’ve made in this blog post with proper credit along with a link to their work (as I’d love to read more English J.League content). Some of the viz can be created for J2 and J3 teams as well so please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want me to do so!

Before I start just a few notes:

• To keep up to date with all of what’s happening in J1, I made a giant Twitter thread of lots of cool informed people to follow on Twitter for English language/international J.League content. You can find it here!!!
• While I have become a FC Tokyo fan since returning to Japan a few years back, this review is meant to be as objective as possible and I do try my best to be impartial.
• I can’t watch every match for every team but I do try to watch around 80% of all J1 games in a given season. Of those games I do watch I’m almost always taking detailed notes on them to review later, re-watching them, etc.
• All of the shots and xG related stuff you see in the viz are non-penalty stats. Exceptions are stuff like the time interval and scoring situations plots.
• My views come from watching only J1 league matches as most cup games clash with my work schedule and I can’t be bothered to subscribe to yet another streaming service. The things I talk about here are primarily based on the J1 league with occasional references to cup competitions.
• All the data gathered and visualizations were done with R!
• Again, I am doing this all on my own free time. This latest one is probably my biggest yet but it’s honestly becoming a huge time sink (as much as I do enjoy doing this), so I may need to cut down on content for future releases. This has been a labor of love but there are limits and I need to start making some more compromises on top of the ones I’ve been making already.

Let’s get started!

# League table

There’s a clear top 3 then a huge jumble of good-but-inconsistent teams that, if they can improve a few things, can actually challenge for the top! Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Kashiwa Reysol look the most likely to either challenge for the final ACL spot or even Sagan Tosu if they can figure out how to score more and convert their draws into wins. In the relegation battle are some unexpected guests in Urawa Reds and Vissel Kobe along with relegation candidate regulars in Shimizu S-Pulse and Shonan Bellmare. Some other poor teams (in my opinion) like Consadole Sapporo and Jubilo Iwata may count themselves lucky that they are managing to keep themselves above water… for now!

Click to show R code!

r
# library(dplyr)
# library(knitr)
# library(kableExtra)

file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2022_mid/jleague_table_2022_mid_cleaned.csv")

jleague_kable_table <- jleague_table_2022_mid_cleaned %>%
knitr::kable(format = "html",
caption = "J.League 2022 - League Table (After Matchday 16)") %>%
kable_styling(full_width = FALSE,
bootstrap_options = c("condensed", "responsive")) %>%
"Expected Goals" = 3)) %>%
column_spec(1:2, bold = TRUE) %>%
row_spec(1, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "green") %>%
row_spec(2:3, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "lightgreen") %>%
row_spec(4:15, bold = TRUE, color = "grey", background = "white") %>%
row_spec(16, bold = TRUE, color = "white", background = "orange") %>%
row_spec(17:18, color = "white", background = "red") %>%
add_footnote(label = "Data: FBref.com & Sporteria | Gamba vs. Sanfrecce postponed due to COVID outbreak | All xG values do not include penalties",
notation = "none")


J.League 2022 - League Table (After Matchday 16)
Result
Goals
Expected Goals
Team Matches W D L Pts GF GA GD xG xGA xGDiff
Yokohama Marinos 16 9 4 3 31 30 17 13 24.81 17.63 7.18
Kashima Antlers 16 9 3 4 30 27 21 6 21.32 18.03 3.29
Kawasaki Frontale 16 9 3 4 30 20 17 3 16.39 17.22 -0.83
Kashiwa Reysol 16 8 3 5 27 22 14 8 20.98 15.67 5.31
Cerezo Osaka 16 7 5 4 26 23 16 7 19.94 19.82 0.12
FC Tokyo 16 7 4 5 25 18 14 4 15.94 18.75 -2.81
Sanfrecce Hiroshima 15 6 6 3 24 19 13 6 20.69 14.22 6.47
Sagan Tosu 16 5 9 2 24 21 16 5 16.60 15.79 0.81
Kyoto Sanga 16 5 5 6 20 16 18 -2 15.51 23.54 -8.03
Nagoya Grampus 16 5 5 6 20 14 16 -2 19.38 15.75 3.63
Consadole Sapporo 16 4 8 4 20 15 26 -11 20.56 23.15 -2.59
Avispa Fukuoka 16 4 7 5 19 11 10 1 17.10 15.82 1.28
Gamba Osaka 15 4 5 6 17 17 20 -3 16.18 21.48 -5.30
Urawa Reds 16 2 9 5 15 15 16 -1 19.51 14.77 4.74
Jubilo Iwata 16 3 6 7 15 18 25 -7 16.00 24.05 -8.05
Shimizu S-Pulse 16 2 7 7 13 15 24 -9 18.88 20.30 -1.42
Shonan Bellmare 16 3 4 9 13 13 23 -10 15.90 18.31 -2.41
Vissel Kobe 16 2 5 9 11 14 22 -8 19.90 21.29 -1.39
Data: FBref.com & Sporteria \| Gamba vs. Sanfrecce postponed due to COVID outbreak \| All xG values do not include penalties

# Team Reviews

I’ve gone for an approach to integrate everything (both the data viz and the tactics stuff) for every team into its own section. Therefore, if you want an explainer to the data viz you’ll need to jump down to the Data Visualizations section to learn more. Hopefully the specific context I provide when presenting each viz for a particular team I’m talking about can give you the right idea though.

## Cerezo Osaka

Cerezo in Akio Kogiku’s first full season in charge (he replaced Levir Culpi in summer 2021) are up in 5th spot, but with a mediocre record of 7 wins, 5 draws, and 4 losses. With the loss of key players in winger Tatsuhiro Sakamoto and defender Ayumu Seko (both gone to seek adventure in Europe for Oostende and Grasshoppers respectively), the Osaka side had quite a busy transfer window as they also sought to start refreshing and lowering the average age of their squad. With the likes of Tiago Pagnussat, Yoshito Okubo, Naoyuki Fujita, Toshiyuki Takagi, and Riki Matsuda (all close or over 30) leaving they brought in the likes of Sho Funaki, Seiya Maikuma, Tokuma Suzuki (who impressed me at relegated Vortis last season), and Jean Patric. Other more experienced players include Ryosuke Yamanaka, the return of Bruno Mendes, and Hikaru Nakahara. Another notable slightly late arrival has been the return of fan favorite Matej Jonjic in defense giving Ryuya Nishio a talented and more experienced partner to rely on.

Most of their season has seen very inconsistent results with Cerezo not able to string two consecutive wins until late May. Besides a 0-3 reverse against Kashima Antlers they’ve been able to be in touching distance of most of their opponents throughout a match, although some of their performances in these games may not actually reflect these close results. It certainly hasn’t been all sunshine and sakuras at the Yodokou Sakura Stadium with star player Takashi Inui banned for 6 games due to frustration over Kogiku’s management of the team after being substituted off in a game against Kashiwa Reysol in April.

How do Cerezo Osaka play?

Cerezo generally shape up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 with Hiroshi Kiyotake playing behind any of their target man type strikers. In defense they keep a solid 4-4 mid-block shifting across from side-to-side in unison and trying to keep gaps between players to a minimum. The strikers are also expected to have a high work-rate off the ball as they are tasked with being Cerezo’s first line of defense. An important aspect of their defending is to prevent passes back inside after the opponent has passed the ball wide in the build-up to prevent opponent Center Midfielders from facing forward and make switches across the field to threaten Cerezo’s weak side.

Cerezo will try to build the ball out from the back, sometimes with Riku Matsuda shifting inside to form a back 3 and Ryosuke Yamanaka pushing up high on the left. This is done to manipulate opposition wide midfielders into pressing deeper into Cerezo’s half while also creating space for Cerezo’s own wide midfielders further up the pitch. Cerezo can also use Kim J.H.’s passing ability to access players that aren’t covered by an opponent’s initial press or just simply whack the ball up to the strikers.

Cerezo have gathered a gang of big strikers in Mutsuki Kato, Bruno Mendes, Hiroto Yamada, and Adam Taggart that are all equally good in the air, can settle the ball with their backs to goal, and also make runs in-behind defense lines after having laid the ball off to a supporting player. The supporting players are usually the wide midfielders that tuck in, trying to anticipate where loose balls might fall or open spaces to receive a lay-off. As strong as the strikers are it is a crucial aspect of Cerezo’s game plan that they are always supported by the likes of Kiyotake and Inui, who can then in turn play through balls behind the defense or dribble up field themselves.

In the final 3rd, Riki Harakawa has been very good as the passer to spread the ball from side-to-side probing defenses while also being Cerezo’s primary set piece taker. Besides the magic provided by Kiyotake and Inui, Ryosuke Yamanaka has also been a threat with his great crossing ability, especially long range early crosses coming from deep. See examples against Kobe and S-Pulse as he has completely taken over the Left Back spot from veteran Yusuke Maruhashi. The wide midfielders frequently pinching inside to support the strikers also give space to the fullbacks to bomb forward and launch these formidable crosses.

With winning ways finally coming in recently, especially a morale-boosting 3-1 win over local rivals Gamba, could Cerezo make a push for the final ACL place (3rd)? A lot will rest on the continued good form of Kiyotake along with the return of injury-wracked Taggart, who scored his 1st (and only 2nd in his entire time in Osaka!) goal of the season against rivals Gamba and a hopefully more clear-headed Takashi Inui (I still have no idea what exactly is going to happen with Inui considering he has finished serving his ban but has apparently refused to train). NOTE: Inui and Cerezo Osaka have decided to part ways in early June.

## Shimizu S-Pulse

Before I go into detail, I think the best way to describe how S-Pulse’s season has gone is that manager Hiroaki Hiraoka has been fired! S-Pulse have now gone nearly 4 seasons of hiring a new manager, struggling in a relegation battle, firing that manager, and finally the new manager or caretaker just about leading them to safety (S-Pulse were also lucky there was no relegation play-off in 2020 due to COVID as well), then rinse-and-repeat. It’s not as though S-Pulse are a club with few resources either, while they may not have the strength of the absolute top teams in J1, they have been able to splash some cash (well, relatively speaking) on various players in transfer fees and wages all throughout the past couple of years. It’s quite a damning indictment of their top-level administration that they keep swapping and changing players and managers, then starting all over again once they’ve fired them. I’m not sure what S-Pulse’s vision or identity is, even more so because they haven’t actually had any real success on the pitch in the past 20 years with only Kenta Hasegawa’s tenure coming anywhere close to consistent success (and he still didn’t win a single trophy!).

It’s rather frustrating for a neutral because in the past 2 years especially, they are clearly some good players in the squad that when things click they play quite well… but those performances haven’t quite turned into good results, confidence wanes, then the manager is fired, …return to the start of my previous paragraph. I wrote quite extensively about S-Pulse in last year’s review, mainly noting their inability to finish enough chances besides Thiago Santana, getting hemmed into their own defensive 3rd/box, etc. This season, unfortunately, while some things have changed, a whole lot of other things have not.

How do Shimizu S-Pulse play?

I talked in length last year on S-Pulses’ problems getting hemmed into their own defensive 3rd, and as an attempt at a solution this season, S-Pulse have been a fair bit more pro-active in defending from the front and trying to keep the general field of play further away from their own goal.

But what’s been a bigger game changer is their improvement in building the ball out from the back. While it’s still not perfect, they are able to progress much better compared to last season and they don’t have to fall into the negative loop of chucking the ball away and getting pushed further and further back toward their own box nearly as often. Playing a large part of this is Reon Yamahara, a 23 year old Left Back who has the passing and dribbling skills to help S-Pulse evade the opposition press. Alongside Eiichiro Katayama and Teruki Hara, S-Pulse have full backs that are good with the ball at their feet but to get the most out of them they need to be able to receive higher up the pitch far more consistently as well.

This is on top of their already excellent attacking ability in transition, spearheaded by Yuito Suzuki (another player I’ve written on extensively in the past). He is fantastic at finding gaps between the lines, turning with the ball and carrying it up field. The off-season purchases of Ryohei Shirasaki, Yuta Kamiya, and Katsuhiro Nakayama have helped S-Pulse double-down on this style of play. Shirasaki has been a great help assisting Suzuki in finding space or appearing in gaps between the lines himself while Nakayama’s speed has been an asset on the counter.

However, it hasn’t all been perfect as S-Pulse still do give the ball away cheaply at times and their blocks of 4 can be dragged apart by smart movements from opposition as their defense is man-oriented rather than space-oriented. For example, Center Midfielders have been dragged away from vital central areas (like in the FC Tokyo game), forced to cover space behind the Full Backs or the gaps between the Fullbacks-Center Backs as quick switches of play force Center Backs to come out wide (vs. Urawa, Cerezo, Tosu, etc.). S-Pulse’s fortunes really hinge upon their press working and the differences in performance and results depending on this aspect has been quite stark.

Even worse is their inability to defend crosses, despite the likes of Valdo, Yoshinori Suzuki (no relation to Yuito), Yugo Tatsuta, and Shuiichi Gonda in their back line. The Shizuoka-based side have conceded 6 from crossing situations and a further 4 from set-pieces (totaling to around 41% of all of their goals conceded so far this season).

S-Pulse are fortunate that there are quite a few mediocre teams around them, including the surprisingly poor results from Urawa and Kobe, so they are still more than capable of turning things around, even with just a few bounces here or there going their way for once (unlike last season). Much depends on Yoshiyuki Shinoda (2nd time as a caretaker in the past 3 years!) and how he rallies this set of players. Looking at their stats, “simply/obviously” they’ll need to decrease the quantity of opponent shots while also increasing the quality of their own shots at the opposite end (easier said than done!).

NOTE: In the middle of writing this, S-Pulse have announced their new manager: Ze Ricardo from Vasco Da Gama. Apparently he is someone the S-Pulse hierarchy have been chasing for a few years so it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on!

## Vissel Kobe

It has been a disastrous season for Vissel Kobe, with Atsuhiro Miura becoming the first managerial casualty of the season in late March, as they currently sit at the bottom of the league table despite their best ever league finish last season (3rd)! Their first win of the season only came in mid-May against Sagan Tosu. There are quite a mix of reasons for these poor performances but a few main ones stand out. First a lack of plan B even more so now that a big part of Plan A, Sergi Samper, the guy who is pretty much the protagonist of their build-up play, is out for the season. Also the lack of squad depth. Compared to Marinos who invested significantly into their squad, Kobe mostly replaced their outgoings. There are still clear lack of backups at Full Back, square-pegs-in-round-holes (Takahiro Ogihara and Koya Yuruki filling unfamiliar roles in a midfield diamond). While Yoshinori Muto and Yuya Osako have struck a good partnership up front since their arrival last summer and largely continue to do so, this season their other signings such as Bojan, Lincoln, Takahiro Ogihara, Shion Inoue, and Tomoaki Makino have flattered to deceive. Other crucial players such as Ryuho Kikuchi and Ryo Hatsuse have been off form, with the former only making a return from injury in March while the latter has lost his place in the starting XI.

How do Vissel Kobe play?

With Sergi Samper, they had someone who could set the tempo for the team and be the initiator of attacking moves. Last season manager Atsuhiro Miura finally was able to unlock how to get the best out of Andres Iniesta by turning the midfield into a diamond, with Samper at the base and Iniesta at the tip.

Samper’s passing range also allowed Kobe to use their full backs aggressively and stretch defense as they are usually the only source of width on the Kobe team. Most of the players would congest the middle, trying to play quick combinations with each other and get into the box or find one of the full backs in open space to cross it back into the box.

Following Samper’s injury and managerial changes, the new manager Miguel Lotina has shifted Kobe into a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with Iniesta playing behind the striker. Defense-wise its a straight-forward 4-4-2 and the high-press was done away with a slightly more passive approach in a mid-block.

However, without Samper, ideas in how to build the ball up from the back have been sparse. Hotaru Yamaguchi and Yuta Goke have always played more of a supportive role, making good runs into the final 3rd/box or creating space for others to shine rather than being play-makers themselves.

While in other parts of the field there just aren’t players to set the right tempo at the right times.

Despite the challenges that cloud Kobe, Iniesta can still fashion chances out of nothing.

The club used the Asian Champions League (ACL) group stages as a chance to reset and Miguel Lotina sought to use the trip to Thailand as a mini pre-season of sorts. Some signs of life with a return to basics under their new manager as seen in this video analysis on their game against Kawasaki Frontale from Quan Tue. Unfortunately, a romping 4-0 victory over Sagan Tosu on their return to Japanese soil proved to be a false dawn as despite a spirited performance against Kawasaki Frontale, they were outdone by a last minute goal. Things only got worse as after their disastrous loss against relegation rivals Shonan Bellmare, Shonan themselves then pulled off a surprise victory over Frontale keeping the distance between the two bottom side at 2 points. Going into the 2nd half of the season, the Rakuten Rovers are 4 points and a few goal difference away from safety.

## Kawasaki Frontale

…Yet another Asian Champions League disappointment, somehow even worse than last year’s by dropping out in the group stages this time around! In the league, they’ve been grinding out results despite some mediocre-at-best performances, mostly on the attacking side of things where they only seem to be able to manage to score 1~2 goals at the best of times (compared to regularly scoring 3-or-more in previous seasons). However, a lot of those ‘grindy’ wins were off the back of very good finishing streaks that didn’t quite match up to their underlying performances. As can be seen below, Frontale have been consistently scoring above their xG but in the past few games, they are finally regressing to the point where their goal scoring is more in line with the quality of shots they are creating.

Much has been made of their blow out losses against Shonan, Cerezo, and Marinos but their defense has been relatively stable otherwise this season. To me, what’s been their real problem this season has been their attack as their metrics have taken a considerable nose-dive compared to past seasons! Last season they were still taking a bit over 14 shots per 90 minutes and also the average quality of their shots hovered around 0.115 xG/shot (see their position in the ‘green’ top right corner in last year’s plot on the left). However this season their shot quantity (~12 shots per 90 minutes) and shot quality (0.085 xG / shot) have dropped significantly (while the scales along the axes are different between the plots, see how in general they are positioned much lower along both x/y axes).

They are also just about squeaking by due to proficiency on set pieces (a notable recent example being their last minute win over Kobe), with 7 goals scored from these situations which amounts to a whopping 35% of their total goals scored.

How do Kawasaki Frontale play?

With the departures of the likes of Ao Tanaka, Reo Hatate, and Hidemasa Morita in the past few seasons Frontale’s midfield has had to go through an evolution. While Kento Tachibanada emerged as Morita’s clear successor while Yasuto Wakisaka has continued to excel (especially as a pass receiver), a big question marked remained on who would become the 3rd man in the midfield 3 after Hatate’s departure to Celtic. In came the Thai superstar, Chanathip Songkrasin. His game at Consadole Sapporo was to drop deep to pick up the ball and carry or pass it into the final 3rd or box and was given a lot of freedom by Mischa Petrovic as to how he did that. While his first appearance for Frontale was in the Super Cup, where he was oddly playing out on the wing, in league play he has been playing as one of the box-to-box midfielders.

However in the first league game of the season against FC Tokyo, with both Chanathip and Ryota Oshima on the field, they were both trying to drop too much to support Frontale’s defense in the build-up. This created large distances between the midfield and forward lines where and while Leandro Damiao was good at holding the ball up, he still needed more support from the midfield.

In later games with Kento Tachibanada back in the engine room, Frontale’s midfield has looked a lot more balanced like last season. Chanathip has been busy getting involved in Frontale’s signature quick passing combinations to escape opponent’s pressing.

On their day, Frontale can still look very good but it’s been far less of a consistent feature this season with a noticeable lack of chemistry between the attack and midfield at times being a very real concern. Unfortunately, due to injury since early April Chanathip hasn’t really seen much league action, so only time will tell how he continues to integrate fully into Frontale’s midfield. The main benefactor of Chanathip and Oshima’s injury as well as Tatsuki Seko seemingly not impressing manager Tohru Oniki enough, has been Daiya Tono who has been able to assert himself as a starting member of the squad. He has the added bonus of being able to play behind the striker too when Frontale want to switch to a double-pivot by throwing in Joao Schmidt next to Tachibanada.

While unlike the attack, the defense has held mainly firm so far this season (including Jung S.R.’s good performances in between the sticks) but it’s really defending from the front, Frontale’s famous pressing, that just doesn’t seem to have the same kind of killer edge as it had in previous seasons. This was quite noticeable in games against Shimizu S-Pulse, Yokohama F. Marinos, and FC Tokyo.

On the other side of the ball, teams have made Frontale suffer in the build-up phase by matching up against Frontale’s defensive midfielder (Tachibanada) and the two Center Backs. With these concerns in mind, the other midfielders also try to drop to help out but this makes the problem worse by restricting the space available for the CBs to perform any sort of evasive maneuvers against the press by dribbling out. With Shintaro Kurumaya being the only left footed CB Frontale have, it’s been difficult for Shogo Taniguchi on the left side paired with Kazuya Yamamura to find good passing angles forward. This only highlights the importance of Shintaro Kurumaya, who only came back from injury in early May, as his ability to carry the ball up field from the back and his good passing has been a lifeline for the Frontale defense line.

Out on the right, Miki Yamane looks tired (this was already a problem last season… but obviously now its gotten worse especially as he’s made numerous appearances for the national team too). At Left Back, Asahi Sasaki has shown some promise at various points but is clearly not ready to be starting week-in week-out at the J1 level but again, there’s no one to replace him as the usual starter Kyohei Noborizato has been fighting off various injuries all season.

A major concern is in attack as Leandro Damiao… seems to be slowing down? The Brazilian’s shot numbers have decreased considerably from averaging around over 3 shots per 90 the past few seasons but this year his shot production has dropped into the low 2 shots per 90 level. Is he not getting into good positions or are teammates unable to get the ball to him? A little bit of both? Without better data and a closer inspection of Damiao on video I can’t make any conclusions but there’s clearly something going on here that warrants further investigation. It’s also worth noting that Damiao’s back-ups are an ever-aging Yu Kobayashi (who also seems to be playing out on the Right Wing more frequently these days) as well as Kei Chinen who has mainly played a bit part role throughout his career. Clearly a new young or at least younger striker is going to be necessary soon, even if Damiao returns to form. Possibly Taisei Miyashiro, but his loan at Sagan Tosu this season has not gone nearly as well as his time at Tokushima Vortis last season.

Looking at the squad age profile below, it’s very telling how little Frontale are using their squad. A good chunk of the players taking up a majority of the minutes are way into their 30s, while recent signings in their ‘peak’ years have either been injured or not played as much for various reasons. Tatsuki Seko, who impressed for Yokohama FC last season has barely had a look in while depth signings (that I thought were quite smart signings at the beginning of last year) like Kazuki Kozuka and Koki Tsukagawa are either injured, not trusted, or thrown in as emergency defenders.

The silky smooth quick exchanges of passes in the final 3rd and around the box, the coordinated and intense pressing just hasn’t been seen as much this season compared to the past. They are still in the title race as the teams around them continue to trip themselves over as well. It is concerning that the cracks seen last season weren’t solved at all and now have grown bigger and bigger as a result. Frontale are holding on to their top 3 stop by the skin of their teeth this season, as they are just about getting good results despite quite a few poor performances throughout the first half of the season. Frontale fans will have to hope that this over performance (in both attack and defense) doesn’t catch up to them and that their actual performances improve to match their results soon.

(Sorry that the designs are completely different but I think you can get the idea… you want more of your games to be below the diagonal line) Last season:

This season:

## Kashiwa Reysol

Kashiwa Reysol have surprised pretty much everybody, including me, over some good results at the start of the season. Their 2021 season was extremely poor in my opinion and it did feel like Cristiano (who has since dropped down to J2 team, V-Varen Nagasaki) broke them out of jail more than a few times at crucial turning points in games. With Cristiano’s departure and the post-Olunga/post-Esaka transfers not working out well at all, it really did seem like to me that Reysol’s days in J1 were numbered. However, manager Nelsinho has finally found a formula to Reysol’s woes by sticking to a back 3 / back 5, whereas last season he kept swapping between a back 3 and a back 4 in what seemed like between every game.

While red cards for opponents in some of their early games certainly helped, they still had to press their advantage and were usually well worth the 3 points they collected at the end of these games. After a trial-by-fire rookie season in professional football, Mao Hosoya has used last year’s experience to really break through and become the focal point in attack for Reysol with the departure of long time talisman Cristiano which has also earned him national team call-ups. Also crucial has been the stellar form of Matheus Savio, who in 2020 suffered a very bad injury and looked quite far from his best on his return last season. Tomoya Koyamatsu who impressed so many last season for Tosu has continued his good form for his new side, mainly supporting the striker or in the midfield engine room. Another thing to note has been Nelsinho’s use of youth players with Kaito Mori, Yugo Masukake, Masato Sasaki, and Hidetaka Maie getting minutes or at least a place on the bench.

How do Kashiwa Reysol play?

After vacillating between a back 4 and back 3~5 last year, Nelsinho has fully stuck to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 system this season. A strong coordinated press has been the identity of this team with one of the strikers leading the opponent defenders toward the sides where the Reysol midfield and the ball-near wing back jump out with intensity to trap opponents against the sideline. The other will usually sit deeper by closely marking the ball-near center midfielder to prevent them from receiving the ball in the center.

Alongside creating high turnovers, Reysol are very quick and vertical in transition. Both Matheus Savio and Mao Hosoya have been the driving force in attack with their line-breaking dribbles and runs into space.

However, teams have been able to evade Reysol’s press in certain games.

Opponents can use Reysol’s forward momentum against them, making them run, stretching the distances between their players, and exploiting the gaps that appear.

Nelsinho therefore has also put a lot of effort into getting Reysol to also be able to build out from the back (Taiyo Koga being instrumental in this, being comfortable with both feet) for when their pressing strategy to attack doesn’t work, with mixed results.

Hosoya is frequently called upon to be the escape route, his strength against opponent Center Backs providing a platform for lay-offs to midfielders and then to gain territory up the field.

However, Hosoya can also become isolated when opponent Center Backs can dominate him physically, which can push Reysol back into their own 3rd. As this continues to happen, it can become even harder for teammates to support Hosoya to receive lay-offs or pick up loose balls which creates a negative cycle of Reysol being progressively unable to escape their own half.

The return of Douglas can’t come soon enough as Hosoya has had to play significant amount of minutes without much rest (not helped by the fact his good form has resulted in call ups to the national team, adding to the minutes played). The other striker options just don’t give the same oomph to their attack, especially consistently throughout the 90 minutes. As shown in the tactics section above, in recent games it’s been fairly easy for the opposition to simply shut down Hosoya and prevent Reysol from making any headway into the opposition half. There are still concerns over their inability to break down defenses when their tried-and-true tactic of long balls and quick counters are nullified by the opposition, but they are well clear of any relegation battle. With improvements to their build-up capabilities, a challenge that Nelsinho clearly wants to overcome to provide some alternative to their now predictable method of attack, Reysol may not just keep their upper-mid table place but even attempt to break into the top 3.

## Kashima Antlers

Kashima Antlers are going through another re-build upon the foundations built by Naoki Soma after he took over from Antonio Zago’s disastrous start to the 2021 season. New manager Rene Weiler was another who arrived in Japan late due to COVID entry restrictions but he has been quickly putting his own stamp on the team, going for a very attack-minded 4-4-2. Antlers have had quite a run of good results of varying levels of performances, with lots of close 1 goal margin games in the early part of the season… A big loss to Marinos in April was a stark wake up call that things were still very much work-in-progress. Alongside their early season loss to Kawasaki Frontale, these results show this Antlers side still don’t quite have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the on-paper “top” sides in the league. But, will this actually matter though in the long run if they can keep up their good results by beating up the rest of the league?

The main concern for Kashima is how light they are at Center Back. With various injuries, suspensions, and the poor form of Kim M.T., Kento Misao has been converted to a Center Back! This then has had a knock-on effect of a lack of Center Midfielders, a problem made a reality upon Diego Pituca’s suspension which left Yuta Higuchi as the only recognizable Center Midfielder (the likes of Ryotaro Nakamura either injured themselves or not trusted yet). Rene Weiler’s solution was to double-down: using Higuchi as a single pivot in a diamond shape, with a supporting cast of the likes of Ryuji Izumi and Juan Alano playing slightly more deeper and centrally than usual. Continued attempts to use Kim M.T. in central midfield (!) since his return from injury has been puzzling to me… and it hasn’t quite worked out but the Swiss manager seems insistent on continuing this project.

How do Kashima Antlers play?

Antlers play a very intense physical game. Kashima players further back, such as Kento Misao from Center Back play a lot of long balls into the two strikers, Yuma Suzuki and Ayase Ueda. Midfield runners then rush up to support and gather loose balls or receive lay-offs. When playing the ball long they usually try to aim toward one side so as to be able to congest play into a small area to create overloads. The attack is very free form with Yuma Suzuki noticeably drifting over to the Left Wing quite often. This also allows the full back on the opposite side to be free in lots of space for a possible switch/diagonal across to the weaker side to push even further into the opponent half.

Once in the final 3rd, they try to get as many bodies into the box as possible for crosses from the likes of Full Backs like Koki Anzai and Keigo Tsunemoto pushing up in support.

There is considerable risk in negative transitions (from attack to defense) by playing this way, as Kashima usually only keep Higuchi as the sole screen for the back line. Manager Rene Weiler mitigates this by employing a very intense counter-press to win the ball back, which is another reason why Kashima try to congest the wide areas of the pitch. When the press is broken through, Antlers rush back to form a low-mid block but they aren’t quite so effective at defending in their own box. Against teams good in possession Antlers face the risk of having their strikers isolated from the rest of the team. Further compounding their problems is that they aren’t that great in building-out from the back to slowly advance up the pitch and get support to their strikers in that way (see their games vs. Frontale & Marinos).

Therefore, Kashima’s strategy really hinges on keeping up their intensity, in winning duels all over the pitch whether it is in midfield or the Center Backs knocking balls back forward, to keep the field of play in the opposition half as much as possible.

Despite some defensive lapses, Ikuma Sekigawa is still having a decent season although its quite clear he misses a proper Center Back partner like Koki Machida from last season. One of my favorite aspects of his play is his great one-touch passing from interceptions, which allow Antlers so much opportunity due to the great speed in transition that Sekigawa’s anticipation and forethought allow Antlers to catch the opponent completely unready in mid-transition. Goalkeeper Kwon S.T. has also rescued Antlers from more than a few of their defensive lapses as a very calming veteran presence for the defense. The Korean took over from Yuya Oki late last season as the youngster’s passing and handling became rather erratic.

Antlers this season haven’t been far from controversy, with Yuma Suzuki’s antics in the Gamba Osaka and FC Tokyo games as well as Diego Pituca’s show of frustration that earned him a lengthy suspension. Another big question mark this season has been, where is Ryotaro Araki? The winner of the J.League Rookie of the Year award last season has barely seen the pitch in 2022. There was promising signs of co-existence with Suzuki in the Gamba game as they rotate with each other out on the Left but it seems Suzuki has completely taken over Araki’s role as the creator and partner to Ayase Ueda. In May there was news about a hernia operation but as usual with a lot of Japanese teams, there’s been radio silence for quite some time before that so one can only assume the hernia or some other injury had been ruling him out since mid-April.

On a more positive note has been the continued rise of Ayase Ueda who, with 10 goals to his name already, has taken over as the league’s top goal scorer from Peter Utaka in recent games. The static diagrams I make don’t really do justice to his wonderful movement and exquisite finishing skill so I’ll leave you to look at his highlight videos on youtube.

With rumors swilling around Ueda’s potential European transfer, Antlers fans would hope that fit again Everaldo can create a similar kind of chemistry with Suzuki in the coming months as he comes back to full fitness after a injury-plagued 2021 season. At the other end of the pitch, if Weiler can figure out the defense then with Antlers only a point behind Marinos going into this international break, the sky is the limit. In the near future a new Center Back should be a priority in the market or the likes of Bueno or Naoki Hayashi start to gain the trust of the manager, as they are only one or two injuries to the back line to cause a serious crisis. This may also let Misao back into midfield next to Higuchi or Pituca. In general this squad is very top-heavy so sooner or later Antlers will be needing reinforcements especially if they keep the results up to return to the ACL next season.

## Yokohama F Marinos

Kevin Muscat’s Marinos side is another team that have defied my expectations. I was honestly very skeptical over Marinos after he took over from Ange Postecoglou as the team really didn’t look up that great (yes, I say this despite them finishing in 2nd last season). Along with the departures of key players like Daizen Maeda and Thiago Martins (the latter mere weeks before the start of the season), I didn’t have them challenging for the title at all nor did I believe they would finish in the ACL places, although I did think they would still be ‘in competition’ for that last ACL spot.

However, watching Marinos this season I have been very impressed. What’s been a clear intention from Muscat has been heavy rotation using as much of the squad as possible to maintain their intensity in every match. This doesn’t always work out due to chemistry issues from new combinations of players like in the games against Kashiwa, Sanfrecce, and Consadole but its something very necessary with the ACL campaign congesting the already busy J1 schedule. Players both young and old such as Ryotaro Tsunoda, Yuta Koike, Kaina Yoshio, Riku Yamane, and Yuki Saneto have all seen some varying levels of action on the pitch so far this season, filling in for injuries, suspensions, or just to give the best players a break.

How do Yokohama F. Marinos play?

Probably the thing you’ll notice most often about Marinos’ build-up is how narrow the fullbacks can be positioned, being involved more centrally in midfield and providing the Center Backs access to the wingers spread out further ahead on the sidelines.

Although of course, they can still sit wide near the sideline as well. Marinos like to create passing triangles or even diamonds to force opponents to become disorganized as they quickly pass between them. The #10, Marcos Junior, is excellent at either finding pockets of space or helping another teammates out by dragging an opponent away.

A common theme you can see above is how many Marinos attacks end with crosses or cut-backs into the box. So it’s no surprise that 40% or 12 of their total goals have come from crossing situations!

With Eduardo having trouble settling in (as the emergency Thiago Martins replacement) and Shinnosuke Hatanaka having various problems of his own, Ryotaro Tsunoda has stepped up to take his chances in the Center Back role. While it certainly helps that he is left footed, he has often looked reassured at the back on top of his build-up capabilities. After a rather disappointing time back at Sendai, Takuma Nishimura has found new life again at Marinos. It has helped that he’s been played far more centrally than he was under Makoto Teguramori as he’s been a perfect squad player filling in either behind the striker or leading the line himself when Marcos Junior or Anderson Lopes has needed a break. One of my favorite players on this team has been Tomoki Iwata, a jack-of-all-trades who can fill in at Center Back, Center Midfield, and Right Back. Nishimura has been excellent finding pockets of space to receive passes, acting as an escape route for Marinos as they try to build up from the back. He has contributed in the opponent half as well, as he is tied 2nd in the team alongside Teruhito Nakagawa on 4 goals scored. Anderson Lopes has been terrific so far but then he got himself banned over spitting in the Avispa Fukuoka game… Fortunately Leo Ceara (who admittedly has not hit the heights of last season) and Nishimura are around to fill in (again, squad depth!). The Yokohama-based side need to make sure horrific defensive collapses like against Urawa don’t happen again as their 1-point lead at the top could have been far more heading into this June international break. Of the current “top 3”, I think they are the most polished team based on my experience watching them and the data. It’ll be interesting to see if their results can continue to match their performances in the 2nd half of the season.

## Nagoya Grampus

Kenta Hasegawa’s new job after his FC Tokyo tenure went up in flames has not gone according to plan. I remarked in last season’s review that star striker, the guy that literally solved pretty much all of their goal scoring issues, Jakub Swierczok, tested positive for some illegal substance and has been banned since late 2021 while Naoki Maeda, another important attacking piece, left for FC Utrecht. So it wasn’t a very positive start before he even rolled up to Nagoya. Their off-season transfers were somewhat sensible, adding dangerous Sagan Tosu pair Keiya Sento and Noriyoshi Sakai and replacing outgoing Takuji Yonemoto with the equally veteran Leo Silva being the highlights.

Hasegawa didn’t change too much of the 4-2-3-1 formula deployed by Massimo Ficcadenti to start the season but turgid displays forced him to change tracks as he moved to a back 3 system by late April. Early on in his tenure, Hasegawa already remarked upon the lack of squad options to choose from which has been made worse by the formation change as the squad really wasn’t constructed around a 3-5-2, especially in center midfield where Kazuki Nagasawa’s injury means even fewer opportunity for rotation for the essential midfield trio of Sho Inagaki, Leo Silva, and Keiya Sento.

How do Nagoya Grampus play?

For the past few years, Nagoya have successfully played a variant of 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 under Massimo Ficcadenti and new manager Kenta Hasegawa started the season largely following this tried-and-tested formula. But as noted in the previous section, some kind of change had to be made due to poor form. With the lack of a true threat up top/centrally as well as the additional defensive demands placed on Mateus when he’s playing out wide, the move to a 3-5-2 was created in part to push the Brazilian maestro more centrally with the freedom to drift around and get him on the ball closer to goal. Meanwhile the the wide areas became the remit of the new wingbacks, such as Yutaka Yoshida, Ryoya Morishita, and the converted Yuki Soma bombing up and down the pitch to support both the defense and attack.

Another new feature as a result of this change in shape was a more aggressive press with Yoichiro Kakitani and Mateus leading from the front, sheperding teams over to the sidelines where Sento, if not the rest of Nagoya’s midfield pushing up in support, along with the ball-near wing back try to trap them against the sideline.

This also has Nagoya playing a much higher line than in previous seasons, but here Haruya Fujii has excelled in covering large amounts of space especially as Mitch Langerak isn’t exactly the sweeper keeper type.

The midfielders, mainly Leo Silva, Sho Inagaki, and Keiya Sento have slowly developed good chemistry as the engine room trio. They have slowly developed a balance of when/who drops and who pushes up to support the attack.

Their recent results have picked up going into the June international break, and while on one hand I don’t think the performances were anything particularly noteworthy, you can commend them for showing some ‘character’ squeaking out wins a man down vs. Fukuoka and in injury time vs. S-Pulse. I still remain skeptical of this team without further reinforcements, getting more help for Mateus in attack (transfers or Noriyoshi Sakai finding some semblance of form) and also padding out the squad with more J1 level players (so not the likes of Takuya Uchida). Their defense in the new back 3 or 5 shape looks quite solid, with the performances of Fujii in particular standing out as the most central defender in the back line. It does look like Nagoya are finding their footing in this new formation and performances are improving somewhat. An interesting summer awaits and we’ll see if Nagoya can dip into the transfer market to bolster their squad as with the grueling summer fixtures on the horizon, this thin squad is a few key injuries from real trouble.

## Shonan Bellmare

Another year, another season of struggle for Shonan Bellmare. After escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth last year, the Hiratsuka-based side were surprisingly able to hold on to their highly coveted young stars such as Taiga Hata, Satoshi Tanaka, and Shuto Machino while Kosei Tani’s medium-long term loan from Gamba Osaka was extended yet again. Their incoming transfers in the off-season were intriguing with the return of Ryota Nagaki and the acquisition of veteran Takuji Yonemoto from Nagoya Grampus (which to my disappointment has led to 19 year old Taiyo Hiraoka not getting a whole lot of minutes this season…). Yet, they didn’t really address their main problem from last year which was finding a reliable source of goals, with only versatile Reysol attacker Yusuke Segawa coming into the team. So, it really shouldn’t surprise anybody that Shonan have yet again struggled for goals as despite their energetic press creating opportunities, they have struggled to then convert those opportunities into good quality chances. Even when they create some chances they just don’t seem to be able to finish (again, a recurring theme from last year) or in their anxiety to score they rush shots or squander good opportunities from good positions.

How do Shonan Bellmare play?

The thing you’ll notice immediately when you watch Shonan is their highly aggressive press. There are many examples from last year’s review that I created so I’ll refer you to those, like the one below:

Good teams, like Marinos below, can still work their way around them though. Swinging the ball side-to-side, forcing Shonan’s lines to shift back-and-forth until a large gap appears on the opposite side for a switch ball into space. Also note that their midfield 3 can’t cover the entire width of the field easily so a lot of work is put on their shoulders to be able to shift over in time.

Bellmare themselves are capable of doing this too, with Satoshi Tanaka integral to their build-up. Further up field, Shuto Machino performs a lot of dropping movements to find space between the lines while Tarik Elyounoussi is fantastic at quick combinations to release players into space following a ball reception or take-on in a congested area.

Shonan’s back line also chooses their moments carefully to push up field in support of the attack, making late runs to surprise defenses caught inattentive or to simply provide another option when Shonan are able to settle the ball in the final 3rd.

Satoshi Tanaka and Taiga Hata are good young players with plenty of upside, both of whom have been called up to the youth national setups in the past few years. Worryingly, Tanaka hasn’t really been at his best this season while Hata has once again battled injury problems as he missed around a month and a half with a MCL issue. I don’t have too much to add from what I wrote on them last year so please read those sections if you’re particularly interested in them.

With the relatively lack of resources available at Shonan its understandable that they are usually in the relegation battle but the past two years have shown they can perform well, its just the results that haven’t followed. There’s not much hope for significant incoming transfers so one will have to bank on the goal scoring touch coming from somewhere within the squad whether its Wellington or more likely Shuto Machino, who has already topped his previous goal record (4 in 2021) with 6 goals halfway through the season.

## FC Tokyo

Mixi’s takeover from long-time sponsors Tokyo Gas was finally completed in late 2021 and a new era for FC Tokyo began. From J2 side Albirex Niigata came a new Spanish manager, Albert Puig, who also has had experience leading Barcelona’s academy setup. It’s been a rough transition period for FC Tokyo to conform to a completely different style of play compared to the previous years under Kenta Hasegawa. Despite a series of good results to start off the season (although it should be noted how close these games actually were), performances on the attacking side of things wavered as both shots and goals dried up when FC Tokyo’s attempts at build-up were continuously thwarted.

When zooming out away from individual matches where things looked rocky, FC Tokyo do have one of the meanest defenses in the league, conceding only 14 goals (tied 3rd best) but it should be noted that they have conceded chances worth 18.75 non-penalty expected goals against (xGA). The one saving grace throughout some troubled times during April and May were the last ditch defending from the likes of new Center Back signing Yasuki Kimoto and veteran Masato Morishige as well as the fantastic saves of new goalkeeper, Jakub Slowik.

A clear issue as seen below has been the quantity of shots taken, and when diving deeper into the individual shot numbers, things are concerning especially for striker Diego Oliveira. The Brazilian’s shot production has gradually decreased all throughout his time at FC Tokyo, which makes sense given that Tokyo acquired him right around in his ‘peak’ years and he is now well over 30 years old.

Data according to FBref after MD 16

• 2018: 2.84 shots per 90 minutes (age 27-28)
• 2019: 2.67 shots per 90 (age 28-29)
• 2020: 1.90 shots per 90 (age 29-30)
• 2021: 1.85 shots per 90 (age 30-31)
• 2022: 1.26 shots per 90 (age 31-32) - after around 14 90s played

It hasn’t all been down to him of course, at times he has looked increasingly isolated up front as balls are booted up to him from harried defenders looking to launch the ball away under pressure without midfielders like Shuto Abe or Kuryu Matsuki in a good position to pick up loose balls or receive the Brazilian’s lay-offs. This has had a doubly negative effect of FC Tokyo then being hemmed deeper and deeper into their own half, causing Tokyo defenders to be under more pressure and the negative cycle continues as they have to boot it away again. Also we shouldn’t discount all of Diego’s on-ball and off-ball work that he does outside of shooting and scoring as his ability to combine with other players around him, especially with Brazilian teammates Adailton and Leandro (the 'O Tridente') as well as his defensive work rate (mainly looking after the opponent’s central midfielder in the opponent’s build up).

However, if your main striker isn’t taking shots then somebody has to pick up the slack and FC Tokyo only has one in Left Winger Adailton with 3.49 shots per 90 and there is a huge chasm between Adailton and the rest of the team. The next few players, who have also played a significant amount of minutes (when using per 90 stats you always need to use a ‘minimum minutes played’ threshold or you’re considering people who’ve played 9 minutes and taken 2 shots and wow he’s got 22.5 shots per 90, which is nonsense), are Kensuke Nagai on 1.16 shots per 90 (from 9.5 90s played) and Shuto Abe at 1.03 shots per 90 (from 15.5 90s played). Ideally, FC Tokyo will want both Kuryu Matsuki, Shuto Abe, and at least the other winger to start getting more shots in addition to creating chances in the final 3rd.

Most good-to-great teams (be they in the J.League or elsewhere) will consistently have at least 2~4 players with over 2 or even 3 shots per

1. Check out Yokohama F. Marinos or Kashima Antlers on FBref’s shooting section or even look further afield to the top teams in Europe for comparison. Of course, this isn’t even considering the actual quality of shots Diego or any other FC Tokyo player is taking, and while I do have team-level xG data, I unfortunately don’t have individual level data for comparison. So below I’ll just show you where FC Tokyo falls when considering team level shot quality and team level shot quantity. The best teams are obviously taking lots of shots that are also of good quality.

How do FC Tokyo play?

On the ball, FC Tokyo have challenged themselves under manager Albert Puig to try and build the ball up from the back as much as possible. There have been a lot of struggles but during this transition period it’s to be expected.

I was concerned with Jakub Slowik’s signing, as good-if-not-great of a shot stopper he is, I didn’t really understand why FC Tokyo would get him alongside hiring Albert Puig. His shot stopping has been excellent as ever, saving Tokyo more than a few points and his kicking has teetered between bad-to-OK. There definitely have been times where his excellent saves have only occurred as a because of his poor passing in the first place (with the rest of the defense also partly to blame too by putting him in uncomfortable situations). I’m not going to make more of a fuss because he’s largely been great and at this point the manager just has to deal with the hands (or gloves in this case) that he’s been dealt with. There are definitely ways to mitigate this issue and it’ll be interesting to see how much Slowik can improve and/or how FC Tokyo’s defenders try to make it as easy as possible for Slowik to contribute to the build-up (it’s a team game after all!).

FC Tokyo’s box-to-box midfielders are crucial to the new style of play. Shuto Abe and Kuryu Matsuki have been excellent so far but as mentioned above, FC Tokyo will need more from them in terms of output in the final 3rd to support and relieve the goal scoring burden on Diego Oliveira.

Although, it is a worry that there aren’t a whole lot of backups in their position to relieve them. Keigo Higashi doesn’t really have the aggression or mobility and in fact he’s been played as the single pivot instead recently where he’s looked surprisingly good.

Matsuki in particular has struck up a great partnership with Adailton on the Left. For a guy that was only playing at the high school level a mere half a year ago, it’s been surprising how good Matsuki has fit into the professional setting. While in the beginning he accumulated quite a lot of fouls as his timing was off (he was suspended for getting 5 yellows quite early into the season), he’s gradually gotten up to speed on the defensive side of things as well.

At worst, they can use Yasuki Kimoto and Masato Morishige’s excellent long passing range to try and get their fast wingers behind the opponent’s high line.

Ryoma Watanabe had an injury-ravaged 2021 season but he’s looked to make his mark in the new era. He’s played at Right Back, midfield, and on the wing as he bring a lot of positional fluidity to FC Tokyo, floating around to confuse opponent markers and contributing to easing Tokyo’s build-up troubles.

Some signs of improvement in FC Tokyo’s build-up were seen in the wins against S-Pulse and Antlers leading up to the international break. While scoring goals is still a concern, being able to consistently deliver the ball into the final 3rd and box to shoot should drastically improve FC Tokyo’s fortunes in front of goal. With longtime Left Back Ryoya Ogawa leaving for Europe (Vitoria Guimaraes), there will have to be a bit more shuffling around at the back with Yuto Nagatomo most likely moving over to the left and Hotaka Nakamura becoming a more permanent fixture in the line-up. It took Hotaka Nakamura quite a while to break into the team this year but in recent games he’s looked quite good so he has already stepped up to the plate.

On the topic of stepping up to the plate, it will be interesting to see whether Kashif Bangunagande can break into the team and usurp Ogawa/Nagatomo’s position at Left Back in the near future (for a deeper dive into Kashif, I wrote about him in last year’s mid-season review). Puig has built a good foundation so far, and despite the clear struggles as the team gets more and more used to the way the new manager wants to play, this will hopefully lead to improved performances in the 2nd Half of the season.

## Gamba Osaka

Tomohiro Katanosaka came into the Gamba hot seat amidst much fanfare after having led the unfancied Oita Trinita side to a Emperor’s Cup final. Although in the league the Kyushu-based side were relegated to J2 in the process, one has to remember that he was able to bring them up all the way from J3 and keep them in J1 for 3 seasons without a whole lot of resources at his disposal. However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Gamba as they sit in 13th, 4 points off the drop albeit with a game in hand due to the game against Sanfrecce being cancelled due to a COVID outbreak. It’s been quite a bumpy inconsistent ride, which has not been helped by a horrendous injury malaise plaguing the squad along with several separate COVID scares. Particular lowlights have been key player Takashi Usami ruled out for the season with a ruptured achilles in March while main goalkeeper Masaaki Higashiguchi will only be back to full fitness in mid/late June.

As seen in the above graphic, these issues have forced Katanosaka to use a variety of youth players to fill out the bench or even the starting XI at times throughout the season. Nevertheless, this hasn’t excused some rather poor performances as the players are only able to sometimes fulfill the requirements needed for Katano-soccer to work.

How do Gamba Osaka play?

The slow but methodical build-up play that characterized Katanosaka’s Oita Trinita side has not been seen. This has been a problem for quite some time now at Gamba with players such as Genta Miura, Gen Shoji, etc. while all very capable defenders, aren’t very good at passing or carrying the ball up-field from the back. To try and solve this Katanosaka has rotated just about every defender Gamba have into the back 3 to varying degrees of success.

This has resulted in more and more midfielders trying to drop deep, creating large gaps between the defense/midfield and the attackers so that even when the likes of Hiroto Yamami, Jiro Nakamura, Kosuke Onose, and Yuya Fukuda are able to get the ball in the final 3rd (still usually out wide rather than in dangerous central areas), they are outnumbered and lose the ball before reinforcements can arrive.

As the season has gone by and more work done on the training ground, Gamba have achieved a bit more cohesion in what they want to do, but again the execution has been a bit lacking with the occasional times where it clicks.

In previous years, Gamba had Usami and Patric pretty much able to bring attacks to completion (either a shot or earn a corner) by their own individual quality alone but Usami is out for the year, while Patric and fellow Brazilian striker Leandro Pereira have not been effective.

Both Brazilian strikers are used to settle long balls but have no one to play to, forced to make isolated runs down the channels, and asked to hold up the ball under a lot of pressure with support taking too long to help. For a good chunk of the season, even when Gamba are able to get from the defensive 3rd to the middle 3rd, there hasn’t been a clear consistent method to get from the final 3rd and into the box (if they can even get to the final 3rd in the first place). Many times they can’t even get out of their own defensive 3rd because of the aforementioned poor ball-playing abilities of all of their Center Backs.

For all the problems outlined above, a thing to note has been that Katanosaka’s in-game management has usually been quite good, with quick adjustments to fix problems such as against Urawa (switching to a 5-4-1 from 4-3-3), Reysol (3-4-2-1 from 4-4-2). If you’re being overly harsh, you could turn around and say that the original plans against these teams have been off the mark as well.

With Usami’s very likely season-ending injury, Gamba needed somebody or somebodies to stand up to fill his creative boots. Surprisingly, it was not any of the other veteran players but the Osaka-based side have come to rely on some fantastic performances of young stars like Jiro Nakamura and Hiroto Yamami (the latter has also been designated as one of Gamba’s primary set piece takers already due to his deadly accurate right foot). As great as they have been, they are still very young and inexperienced so they aren’t always going to be consistent. Banking a lot on these young guys to be able to perform week-in week-out is a tough ask and just about scraping results from superb bits of individual play (like screamers from one of the few good recent Gamba signings, Dawhan or heroic goalkeeping performances from the likes of Jun Ichimori and Kei Ishikawa) is not very sustainable.

This is why one can begin to question Gamba’s signings (again, with a few exceptions like Dawhan), as multiple attempts to move away from the dependency on Patric/Usami have largely failed. The likes of Wellington Silva, Tiago Alves, Leandro Pereira, Hideki Ishige, Ju Se-jong, among others have all come with certain expectations and they haven’t met them at all. This is on top of the fact that main squad members of past few seasons don’t look nearly as effective without Usami such as Kosuke Onose, Yuya Fukuda, Yuki Yamamoto, Shu Kurata, and more. Usami’s absence has really had an impact on this team as they can’t rely on his very good floor-raising ability to drag teammates up a few levels. As an aside, if you want to learn more about the the concepts of ‘floor-raisers’ and ‘ceiling-raisers’ as they apply to soccer, I urge you to check out Om Arvind’s blog post: How Basketball Can Help Us Understand Football: Introducing ‘Floor Raising’ & ‘Ceiling Raising’.

On a more positive note, the energetic and aggressive midfield pairing of Mitsuki Saito and Dawhan has been quite good but mainly in transition-heavy games while Kohei Okuno has filled in at times as he’s more useful in possession. With this squad, the investment in the past few seasons, Gamba clearly should be doing better… but given Katanosaka’s profile, the amount of trust he seems to have from the club hierarchy, and the clear misfortune regarding injuries and COVID outbreaks, there’s still time for him to turn things around and turn some of the glimpses of quality we’ve seen into a sustainable set of good performances.

Consadole Sapporo started their season off in… intriguing fashion as they drew the first 6 (six!) games of the season before finally getting walloped 0-5 against Sagan Tosu on matchday 7. Since then the usual theme of Sapporo yo-yo-ing between Wins-Draws-Losses took hold and they sit 11th in the standings. From watching their games and from the data, it does feel like they have been bailed out of more potential losing games due to some superb saves from Takanori Sugeno.

Unfortunately for Sapporo, Sugeno came off injured after matchday 13 and they have missed both his big saves as well as his involvement in their build-up. With or without him though, their defense has leaked like a sieve and they seem to concede goals from all sorts of situations. They “lead” the league in goals conceded with a whopping 26.

They also give up a league worst (by quite a margin) quality of shots conceded that is somewhat counterbalanced by a OK-to-decent (if slightly profligate) attack.

The defense is based on man-marking all over the pitch, completely ignoring concerns of wide open spaces left between players or lines. While Sapporo at their best don’t have to worry about those gaps because they can dispossess the opponent or win duels before that becomes an issue, but as you might imagine this is also why they can be so easy to create chances against. It’s a lot of running and pressing but they do look like headless chickens at times. On the ball, one of the central midfielders drops to turn the back 3 into a back 4. The outer Center Backs, usually Akito Fukumori and Shunta Tanaka pretty much operate as Full Backs while Daiki Suga and Lucas Fernandes take up high and wide positions.

Since Anderson Lopes left early last year, there has been a clear lack of focal point up top for Sapporo to settle long balls or get on the end of one of Lucas’ crosses. Milan Tucic has looked very underwhelming to the point where it has usually been Gabriel Xavier playing as a striker with Yoshiaki Komai and Takuro Kaneko in close support. Xavier has usually been forced out of central areas and drifts wide to receive the ball only making the problem worse. In the off-season they brought back Shinzo Koroki but at age 35, his best days are behind him and he’s also only appeared in 5 league games due to injury. A bright spot has appeared this season with young Taika Nakashima providing a spark as a late substitute in many games with his strength, running, and heading ability. He has also scored more than a few goals in the league cup so that’s added fuel to the flame over calls for his inclusion into the starting lineup. It remains to be seen if Nakashima can indeed nail down the striker role as consistently performing from kickoff is very different from flashes of brilliance against tired legs.

Despite finishing 4th in Mihailo Petrovic’s first season at the helm back in 2018, results have been consistently mediocre with consecutive midtable finishes and only a runner up finish in the 2019 League Cup were they anywhere near any sort of silverware. Sapporo don’t have a whole lot of resources and Petrovic has been dipping into the good pool of youth academy and university graduates throughout his tenure but the problem has been a real lack of progress on any front, tactically or in results. Even if their young players become good, then they are either going to get taken by other J.League teams (for not a whole lot, Chanathip’s transfer to Frontale being an exception) or going straight to Europe. The big money they got for Chanathip is presumably not going to be splashed out on big signings but rather to keep things running and improve stuff behind-the-scenes, which is reasonable. But in terms of the near-to-mid term future, where does Mischa go from here? It just feels like Sapporo keep taking a few steps forward but even more steps back every season and wind up in midtable mediocrity… or this season, it could easily be worse.

## Urawa Reds

It has been a rocky start to the 2nd season of Ricardo Rodriguez’s Reds Revolution as the club hovers just above the relegation zone. A wild mix of disallowed goals (some deserved, some questionable), chances being missed by themselves or scored by the opposition at crucial branching points in games, and idiotic red cards especially when Urawa were in the ascendancy (Gamba, Kobe, etc.), have seen the Reds completely throwing away their momentum from their Emperor’s Cup win late last year. This hasn’t been helped by injury issues (star striker Kasper Junker having an especially slow start as his injury malaise from last year followed him into this season) and a COVID scare right after the morale-boosting pre-season Super Cup win over league and ACL rivals Kawasaki Frontale.

Even with the injuries to Tomoya Inukai (out for the season) and Hiroki Sakai (out for a few months), the defense hasn’t been the problem at all with the Reds only conceding 16 goals, tied 5th best in the league but more contextually is significantly less than their fellow relegation strugglers around them. Even still, the problem becomes when you can’t kill games off, even if Urawa manage to take the lead, you keep giving opponents hope and they can very well manage to nick a goal off of you no matter how good your defense normally is. Of course, that doesn’t excuse Ricardo Rodriguez who just can’t seem to figure out how to give the platform for his attackers to score goals and unfortunately even in the few times they do, they aren’t able to take their chances.

At the other end of the pitch, things have been pretty solid as they not only allow very few shots, they are usually of very low quality as well.

All of this has culminated in a side that suppresses opponent’s attacks, creates few but good quality chances of their own… that they just can’t finish.

How do Urawa Reds play?

Their build-up, excellent as it usually is can still be stifled too. However, using Shusaku Nishikawa’s long range passing ability, Urawa do have some forms of escape especially with long aerials toward Takahiro Akimoto who is good at settling the ball using his strength.

Like last year, Ataru Esaka and Yoshio Koizumi have been excellent at finding gaps, turning, and playing a pass.

On the other hand, a clear problem has been getting from the middle 3rd to the final 3rd/penalty box…

If this team can start scoring goals they will rocket up the table because they really do have all the hallmarks of a good side with a solid defense and a bag full of build-up routines that can evade almost any press. Even with considerable investment on players and trust placed in Ricardo Rodriguez as part of Urawa’s 3 Year Plan, poor results have derailed their season as they sit 14th, and a whole 15 points away from the last ACL spot (double of their current tally). So although another top table finish is already off the cards, the Reds are still with a shout in all cup competitions including the coveted Asian Champions League trophy. Out of all the other struggling clubs around them in the bottom half (especially fellow ACL team, Vissel Kobe), they are the ones I believe have the best chance of climbing back into the top half of the table.

NOTE: Bryan Linssen has been signed, maybe he’s the one to solve their goal scoring issues? After Alex Schalk and David Moberg, maybe 3rd time is the charm??

## Kyoto Sanga

Cho Kwi-jae has revitalized a Kyoto Sanga side that had been stuck in J2 for over a decade by immediately installing his playing style to push Kyoto to an automatic promotion spot in his first season in charge of the club in 2021. Kyoto is all about high intensity, pressing and harrying opponents from the front while also launching quick counter attacks when they are able to regain the ball in their own defensive 3rd as well. On the other hand, they don’t seem quite so adept at breaking down defenses so they do get stuck when opponents simply retreat and not play into their hands. Their defending deeper in their own half of the field has also been a concern as they have forced Naoto Kamifukumoto to make a lot of saves. A mix of the veteran goalkeeper working miracles and opponent’s poor finishing has Kyoto in the worrying position of consistently conceding goals far less than the quality of chances they give away opponents, something that could change with drastic consequences. Overall they have conceded 17 non-penalty goals from 23.54 non-penalty xGA (around the middle of the pack in the former category but 2nd worst in the league in the latter!).

Sanga’s main threat has been the eternal Nigerian, Peter Utaka. His very presence has terrorized J2 and J1 defenses in the past as he has the skill to complete attacks all by himself at times. At the age of 38, the big question in pre-season was whether he could still do his thing against J1 defenses. With 8 goals and playing nearly every league minute at the halfway point of the 2022 season, we can emphatically say that he can. On the other hand, Kyoto’s clear reliance on him for any attacking output has its limits as despite a decent start to the season (including a surprise victory over Urawa Reds on opening day), Sanga went win-less for nearly a month until their fortunate win against Kawasaki Frontale right before the June international break.

How do Kyoto Sanga play?

NOTE: All of the images come from one match because while I have watched quite a bit of Kyoto this season (including going to a match at their wonderful stadium), it’s simply a lot of work to do any of this in my (limited) free time. In any case, their game against Urawa was quite representative of what they want to do.

Sota Kawasaki, especially, has been very good in transitions.

Kyoto can also play out from the back, with the two box-to-box midfielders working with the wingers to find space between the lines. Although they don’t mind playing it more direct as well.

Kyoto sit comfortably in 9th place right now, but points-wise the table is quite tight and any more wobbles in form like in May can knock them down into the relegation battle again. While the starting XI is decent with aforementioned players like Peter Utaka, Sota Kawasaki, Shogo Asada, being the standout, quite a lot of their squad options are clearly J2 quality and don’t really seem to be able to make an impact off the bench other than to reinvigorate Sanga’s press deep in the 2nd Half of games. Cho Kwi-jae has a clearly defined system but a lot still rests on the continued fitness and form of Peter Utaka, his goals and assists will ultimately decide Kyoto’s fate in the 2nd half of the season.

## Sagan Tosu

Sagan Tosu are another team that I discounted heavily in my pre-season predictions. While I still thought they wouldn’t get relegated, I imagined them to probably be skirting around 13th-15th but then I got really worried after defensive stalwart Eduardo was pried away by Marinos mere weeks before the season started. While I did consider the retention of Tosu’s ‘system’ that was fairly successful in 2021, albeit this season with vastly different players of questionable (or so I thought at that time) quality, I didn’t know how much of that was based on Kim Myung-hwi’s work or the coaches. With the benefit of hindsight now it seems that a lot of the mechanisms of the system was crystallized by the coaches and the new manager Kenta Kawai came in to add his own tweaks to it while trying best to integrate a whole new set of players to it. Instead of the more “established” J1 names like Naoyuki Fujita, Yuki Kakita, Taisei Miyashiro, Hwang Seok-Ho, it has been relatively unknowns/unheralded players (Yuto Horigome, Akito Fukuta) or young players (Fuchi Honda, Taichi Kikuchi) that have taken the place of outgoing transfers.

The performances and results have been relatively stable, which is a far cry from what other people, including myself, were expecting. They were actually undefeated until matchday 8 and also are the team with the lowest number of losses in this half of the season (just 2!), however they are “only” 8th due to 9 draws. This is partly by design due to their conservative possession used as a defensive tactic as they carefully try to build-up the ball from the back.

How do Sagan Tosu play?

The most notable tweak this season has been a consistent use of a double-pivot as last season Tosu had a lot of trouble defending in negative transitions (from attack-to-defense) using only a single pivot of Daiki Matsuoka or Keiya Sento. This season has seen Kei Koizumi (who at the closing stages of the last season took over the single pivot position) sit next to Akito Fukuta. The shifting of the back 3 into a back 4 on the left side that was a key aspect of their play last season continues today but with different players.

While __Park I.G.’__s involvement isn’t shown in the below scenes, he provides a lot of support the the Center Backs and provides that +1 in the build-up that can make playing through easier or even attract more opponents high up (consequently leaving space to exploit behind for Tosu attackers).

As good as they look in the examples above, they still do mess up and give up chances especially compared to last season as they just don’t have the quality of individuals in the back line and midfield having had to go from Eduardo to Masaya Tashiro or Akito Fukuta instead of Daiki Matsuoka or Keiya Sento, etc.

When teams try to play it long to nullify Tosu’s press or they are simply able to evade it, it becomes all the more important for the back 3 to be able to shut down attacks before their opponent can push up to support their strikers. Worse comes to worst, they do still have Park I.G. who can sweep up across a big area.

While Tosu have been consistently solid in defense, its still a concern that they haven’t pressed their advantages when it comes to attack especially when they are able to steal that ball high up the pitch due to their well coordinated press. Tosu haven’t been able to get the best out of Yuki Kakita (only 3 goals this season) and Taisei Miyashiro, both of whom impressed at a poor Tokushima Vortis side last season. A rotating cast of strikers have been tried, none of whom has fully nailed down a spot until recently where Yuji Ono has been picked for his pressing acumen and link-up abilities rather than his hunger for goal. It seems the direction manager Kawai wants to take is to let the goals be spread around the entire team.

## Avispa Fukuoka

It’s been pretty much the same for Avispa Fukuoka, although some results haven’t fallen their way this year compared to last season but Avispa plays along the very fine margins in football so it should be expected. Looking at their xG difference chart in games where they’ve had a positive xGD (even if by not a whole lot) results haven’t followed as much this time around (note the 6 draws and 1 loss despite their positive xGD in those games).

The Kyushu-based side still use a small tight knit squad, manager Shigetoshi Hasebe’s only major changes was the incoming transfer of Brazilian striker Lukian from newly promoted Jubilo Iwata and Tatsuya Tanaka from Urawa Reds. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out for Lukian as he only scored his first goals against FC Tokyo in early May after a drought of 10 matches. As a result, Avispa have continued to rely on Yuya Yamagishi up top while the likes of Jordy Croux continues to ably supply the attackers or take shots himself by cutting in on his wicked left foot.

How do Avispa Fukuoka play?

Even with a move to a slightly more pressing style to change things up, the lack of goal scoring threat is still painfully clear with the game against 10 men Nagoya in late May proving to be an egregious example. One wonders how much manager Shigetoshi Hasebe might want to sacrifice their defensive solidity to squeeze just a little more juice out of an attack that, when their defense is breached by skill or luck, don’t seem able to provide any sort of riposte.

## Sanfrecce Hiroshima

It was a rough start of the season for a Sanfrecce Hiroshima that were trying to rid themselves of the Hiroshi Jofuku era that started in the 2018 season. With the entry restrictions for COVID in place at the start of 2022, once again foreign managers and players coming into the J.League had their arrival delayed. Although Michael Skibbe had participated in pre-season “remotely”, without his actual presence there on the sidelines until days before matchday 3 in early March the team struggled as they posted a 0W 3D 2L record in the first 5 games of the 2022 season. However, fortunes turned around as Skibbe’s revolution started to take hold as they have only lost a single game (to Kashiwa Reysol in matchday 11) since matchday 5 as Sanfrecce rocketed up the table from the relegation zone and into the crowded top half of the table. Their attacking output has improved tremendously compared to last season and they are top or close to the top in a variety of attacking stats like 20.69 total non-penalty xG (4th in the league), 1.38 non-penalty xG per 90 (2nd), and 229 total non-penalty shots (3rd).

This hasn’t come at a cost of poor defending as Skibbe has kept the strong back 3 of Hayato Araki, Sho Sasaki, and Yuki Nogami largely intact as a unit with Tsukasa Shiotani replacing Nogami in the last few matchdays before the June international break. With their aggressive high press, they try to win the ball back as high up the pitch and away from their own goal as much as possible. This along with the steady back line backed up by Keisuke Osako (who has wrestled away the starting birth from veteran Takuto Hayashi) in goal have kept down the volume of shots against extremely well as they lead the league with 9.67 shots against per 90. On the other hand, when Sanfrecce’s high press is evaded, teams have a lot of space to run at against the Hiroshima back line to create dangerous chances.

How do Sanfrecce Hiroshima play?

On the ball, Sanfrecce do try to work it out from the back, with clever movements by the likes of Tsukasa Morishima and Makoto Mitsuta to drop into space.

There still have been problems as whens things aren’t working out from the back 3, their wing backs try to come deeper to help, which only makes the problem worse at times.

Both are also threats on the counter as well, supported by the likes of Tomoya Fujii rocketing up the right wing in support.

The outer Center Backs also get involved to create overloads on the wings as well, either carrying the ball up field themselves or timing late runs into the final 3rd.

What Michael Skibbe has provided the team is a very clear plan of attack and its a major reason why Sanfrecce are able to consistently get a lot of shots (of varying quality).

With hardly any incoming transfers to shake things up what is still largely a Jofuku-era squad, Michael Skibbe has done quite a good job on a shoe string budget, improving and evolving existing players (Tomoya Fujii, Tsukasa Morishima) and also bringing back players out on loan (Gakuto Notsuda). Yoshifumi Kashiwa is rolling back the years with some great performances and has nailed down that LWB spot ahead of younger teammates. I was pretty skeptical of Nassim Ben Khalifa but he’s honestly turned out all right so far. From his time working with Skibbe in Switzerland, he clearly understands what is required of him and while he’s only hit the net once so far, he’s been contributing both on and off the ball across the pitch.

Still, some more investment is clearly needed with a clear drop off in quality between their starting XI and the bench. A return from injury of Shun Ayukawa and Ezequiel should add a bit more depth to their squad as the very busy and physically taxing summer schedule comes around to start the 2nd half of the season.

## Jubilo Iwata

Manager Masakazu Suzuki had to step down due to health concerns so Akira Ito, who had led fellow J2 team Ventforet Kofu in 2021, stepped up to lead a Jubilo side who returned to J1 for the first time since the 2019 season. As if that wasn’t enough they had lost their star 20 goal striker, Lukian, to Avispa Fukuoka in the winter transfer window. The loss of such a focal point in attack was only exacerbated by the fact that his replacement was none other than goal-shy Kenyu Sugimoto.

As such it has not been an easy return to J1 for the Shizuoka-based side as they have struggled in most games so far, their performances consistently mediocre. Yet, more than a few results have gone their way and the existence of even worse teams this season have meant they are just about keep themselves above the relegation zone by a 2 point margin in 15th place.

The stats all give a grim view of a very mediocre team that not only take the fewest shots (although to be fair, they are of relatively good quality) but in turn concede the most per 90 minutes as well.

A whopping 11 goals or 44% of all of their goals conceded have come from crosses.

How do Jubilo Iwata play?

A lot of emphasis is placed on players occupying all 5 lanes relative to the positioning of their teammates. Jubilo can take it slow but their build-up play has been susceptible to being intercepted in dangerous positions. Manager Ito seems persistent on preserving this style despite a more counter-attacking setup seemingly suiting the players better such as Yuto Suzuki and Fabian Gonzalez.

Yuto Suzuki (not to be confused with Yuito at regional rivals S-Pulse) has been a revelation even at the J1 level but it should be concerning that not only does he lead the team in goal scoring but also in assists despite being a Right Wing back. Both Yuki Otsu and Fabian Gonzalez have appeared as super subs with both players on 3 goals at this point in the season. It took a bit of time but Rikiya Uehara, who was curiously on loan at J1 side Vegalta Sendai last season while Iwata themselves were in J2, has pushed his way into the starting line up as he has started all but one game from matchday 9. Japan and J.League legend Yasuhito Endo still contributes with his great range of passing and set pieces, Iwata will need all of his experience to be able to keep themselves afloat in J1. All in all, Jubilo Iwata will have to sharpen up considerably at both ends of the pitch as their results might dip to levels more in line with their bad performances in the 2nd half of the season.

# Data Visualizations

I’ve changed the calculation of a squad’s median age up a bit by simply taking into account only players that have played 50% of more of total possible league minutes. This is so when looking at the ‘average’ age of a team, we’re doing a better job of considering players who are regulars in the team. I am not sure how other people might do it but from playing around with the raw data it looks OK, most teams have around 9~12 players that meet this threshold so I do think I’m capturing the right selection of players in any given team.

Anyway, here’s the list of the U-23 players in the league with the most minutes played so far this season (filtered for those that have played more than 50% of total possible league minutes). You might want to keep an eye on these guys in the short-to-mid term.

Click to show R code!

r
# library(dplyr)
# library(knitr)
# library(kableExtra)

file = "https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Ryo-N7/soccer_ggplots/master/data/jleague_2022_mid/jleague_age_utility_df_2022_mid.csv")

u23_players_tab <- jleague_age_utility_df %>%
filter(age <= 23, min_perc >= 0.5) %>%
arrange(desc(min_perc)) %>%
select(contains('name'), age, -fname, minutes, min_perc) %>%
mutate(min_perc = min_perc * 100) %>%
tidyr::unite('Name', first_name, last_name, sep = ' ') %>%
rename(Team = team_name, Age = age, Minutes = minutes,
% of Total Minutes Played = min_perc) %>%
knitr::kable()


Name Team Age Minutes % of Total Minutes Played
Taiyo Koga Kashiwa Reysol 23 1440 100.0
Tomoya Fujii Sanfrecce Hiroshima 23 1310 97.0
Yuito Suzuki Shimizu S-Pulse 20 1328 92.2
Keigo Tsunemoto Kashima Antlers 23 1301 90.3
Ayase Ueda Kashima Antlers 23 1284 89.2
Mao Hosoya Kashiwa Reysol 20 1278 88.7
Shogo Asada Kyoto Sanga 23 1262 87.6
Ryuya Nishio Cerezo Osaka 21 1260 87.5
Kosei Tani Shonan Bellmare 21 1260 87.5
Yuki Kobayashi Vissel Kobe 21 1216 84.4
Haruya Fujii Nagoya Grampus 21 1212 84.2
Yuto Iwasaki Sagan Tosu 23 1208 83.9
Kuryu Matsuki FC Tokyo 19 1191 82.7
Reon Yamahara Shimizu S-Pulse 22 1182 82.1
Daiki Suga Consadole Sapporo 23 1136 78.9
Ikuma Sekigawa Kashima Antlers 21 1123 78.0
Asahi Sasaki Kawasaki Frontale 22 1122 77.9
Makoto Mitsuta Sanfrecce Hiroshima 22 1023 75.8
Daiki Sugioka Shonan Bellmare 23 1024 71.1
Hirokazu Ishihara Shonan Bellmare 23 1010 70.1
Teruki Hara Shimizu S-Pulse 23 980 68.1
Keisuke Osako Sanfrecce Hiroshima 22 900 66.7
Hisashi Appiah Kyoto Sanga 23 944 65.6
Sota Kawasaki Kyoto Sanga 20 907 63.0
Atsuki Ito Urawa Reds 23 884 61.4
Hiroto Yamami Gamba Osaka 22 824 61.0
Taiga Hata Shonan Bellmare 20 857 59.5
Yugo Tatsuta Shimizu S-Pulse 23 814 56.5
Shuto Machino Shonan Bellmare 22 792 55.0
Daiya Tono Kawasaki Frontale 23 769 53.4
Satoshi Tanaka Shonan Bellmare 19 764 53.1
Taichi Kikuchi Sagan Tosu 23 738 51.2

Here are the image links for each team:

## Time Interval

Ideally I would use a 15 minute interval so I could get rid of that one weird section straddling both halves (40-50th minute) but this was the easiest data set I could get. What’s noticeable from this data set is that the good teams generally know how to close out a game and don’t concede many goals in the last 10~20 minutes.

Here are the image links for each team:

## Scoring Situations

Ideally, I would have data that concerns all shots or xG accumulated from different match situations as that would mean a much larger sample of data to power any insights (as goals are only the end result and may not give us information about a team’s actual performance).

Here are the image links for each team:

## Team Shot Quantity

In the previous few sections we got to know a lot about the goals that J.League teams scored. However, in a sport like soccer/football goals are hard to come by, they might not really accurately represent a team’s actual ability or performance (even if ultimately, it’s the end result that matters). To take things one step further I was able to gather data from Sporteria on shot quantity to dive a bit more into team performances. I’ve reversed the order of some of the stats in these next few plots so that in all cases the top right is best and bottom left is the worst teams when looking at their respective stats.

## Team Shot Quality

So, what exactly is expected goals (xG)? Expected goals is a statistic where a model assigns a probability (between 0 and 1) that a shot taken will result in a goal based on a variety of variables and is used for evaluating the quality of chances and predicting players’ and teams’ future performances. A xG model only looks at the variables up to the point that the player touches the ball for a shot. Post-shot xG models covers the information about where in the frame of the goal the shot went (“post” as in all the information after the player touches the ball for the shot) but I won’t cover that here.

For some quick primers on xG check the links below:

The following two sections use xG data from Football-Lab. I’m not privy to all of what goes into their model but the explanation page on their website (in Japanese) tells us about some of the information they used:

• Distance from goal?
• Angle from goal line?
• Aerial duel?
• Body part used?
• Number of touches? (one touch, more than two touches, set plays, etc.)
• Play situation? (Corner kick, direct/indirect free kick, open play, etc.)

So, the usual variables that you might recognize from other xG models are being considered. Combining shot quantity and shot quality numbers gives you a much better idea about a team’s performance on either side of the ball.

## 5 Match Rolling Averages:

Here are the image links for each team:

## xG Difference

xG Difference is pretty much the same thing as Goal Difference except that we use xG and xGA rather than goals and goals against. This lets us see very quickly which teams generally outperformed their opponents in terms of quality of chances created to quality of chances conceded based on a xG model. This time around I also included the team’s results inside the bubble points. So it’s easier to see whether a team that had a positive xGD in a specific match couldn’t manage to win the game or vice-versa.

# Conclusion

It’s been quite a season so far, and unlike recent previous seasons Kawasaki Frontale isn’t dominating at the top of the table. The gap between all teams feels quite smaller than they have in the last few years with anybody capable of getting a few consecutive good/bad results to rocket/plummet up/down the table! The top of the table is quite tight with what was supposed to be the ‘top 3’ teams all taking stumbles in late May bringing the likes of Kashiwa Reysol and Cerezo Osaka on the cusp of breaking into the Asian Champions League places, if not getting involved in the title race themselves.

At the bottom sit Vissel Kobe who have got their only 2 wins of the season in the past month but hope that they can turn their season around. As mentioned if Urawa can find their goal scoring boots they’ll be able to jump back up the table as well. This might spell trouble for other bottom clubs who are slightly buoyed in the standings due to the under-performance of these ‘on-paper’ stronger clubs. With a lot of fixtures in the hot and humid Japanese summer to come, buckle up for some more table turbulence!

As for myself, in early April I went to Kyoto and watched Kyoto Sanga play against Sagan Tosu at the lovely Sanga Stadium. Below are some pictures:

This weekend I will be going to Saitama to watch Urawa Reds take on Nagoya Grampus, hopefully as things start opening up more I’ll be able to visit more and more stadiums (with full crowd atmospheres) in the coming months!

See you all in November for the season end review!